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Mammoths of the Great Plains
By Eleanor Arnason
PM PressCopyright © 2010 Eleanor Arnason
All rights reserved.
MAMMOTHS OF THE GREAT PLAINS
Every summer my parents sent me to stay with my grandmother in Fort Yates, North Dakota. I took the rocket train from Minneapolis, waving at Mom and Dad on the platform as the train pulled out, then settling comfortably into my coach seat. I loved my parents, but I also loved to travel, and I was especially fond of the trip to Fort Yates.
We glided north along the Mississippi, gaining speed as we left the city and entered the wide ring of suburbs around Minneapolis and St. Paul. Looking out, I saw scrub woods and weedy meadows, dotted with the ruins of McMansions and shopping malls.
The suburbs had been built on good land, my dad told me, replacing farms, wood lots, lakes and marshes. "A terrible waste of good soil, which could have fed thousands of people; and the land is not easy to reclaim, given all the asphalt and concrete which has been poured over it. That's why we've left it alone. Let time and nature work on it and soften it up!"
Dad's employer, the Agricultural Recovery Administration, might be ignoring the suburbs. But there were people in them. Looking out my window, I saw gardens and tents among the weeds and ruined houses; and there were platforms made of scrap wood along the tracks. The rocket trains didn't stop at the platforms; but local trains did, picking up produce for markets in the city. Now and then I saw an actual person, hanging clothes on a line or riding a bicycle bump-ily along a trail.
"Fools," Dad called them and refused to buy their food in the market, though it had passed inspection. I thought the people were romantic: modern pioneers. My grandmother had things to say about pioneers, of course.
North of St. Cloud, the forest began, and I went to the bubble car, riding its lift to the second floor and a new seat with a better view. The forest was second or third growth, a mixture of conifers and hardwoods; and there was a terrible problem with deer. They were a problem on farms as well, though not as much as gen-mod weeds and bugs. Market hunters controlled the deer, in so far as they were controlled. Wolves and panthers would do a better job, my father said; but the farmers didn't like them.
Trees flashed by, light green and dark green, brown if they were dying. The conifers were heat-stressed and vulnerable to parasites and disease. In time the forest would be entirely hardwood. Now and then I saw a gleam of blue: a pond or lake surrounded by forest. Sometimes the train crossed a river.
Around noon we reached the bed of fossil Lake Agassiz, also known as the Red River Valley. The forest ended, and we traveled through farm land, amazingly flat. Trees grew in lines between the fields: windbreaks. They were necessary, given the wind that came off the western plains. The main crops were potatoes and sugar beets. The farmers had to keep changing the varieties they grew as the climate changed, getting hotter. "We're like the Red Queen in Alice," Dad said. "Running and running in order to remain in one place."
The train stopped at Fargo-Moorhead, then turned due north, going along the Red River to Grand Forks. Then it turned again. I went to the dining car and ate lunch while we raced west across the North Dakota plain. This was wind farm country. Rows of giant windmills extended as far as I could see. Between them were fields of sunflowers. In the old days, my dad said, the fields had been dotted with pothole lakes and marshes full of wild birds. Most were gone now, the water dried up and the birds flown. In any case, the train moved so rapidly that I couldn't bird watch, except to look at hawks soaring in the dusty blue sky, too far up to identify.
I got off at Minot and stayed the night with my mother's second cousin Thelma Horn. In the morning Thelma put me on a local train that ran south along the Missouri River. There was only one passenger car, hitched to an engine that hauled boxcars and tankers. The track was not nearly as well maintained as the rocket train's line. The local rocked slowly along, stopping often. By late morning we were on the Standing Rock Reservation. There were bison on the hillsides, the only livestock that made sense in short grass prairie, my dad said, and hawks in the sky. If I was lucky, I might see pronghorns or a flock of wild turkeys.
By noon I was at the Fort Yates station. My grandmother waited there, tall and thin and upright, her hair pulled back in a bun and her nose jutting like the nose on the Crazy Horse monument. At home in Minneapolis, I forgot I was part Lakota. Here, looking at my grandmother, I remembered.
She hugged me and took me to her house, an old wood frame as spare and upright as she was. My bedroom was on the second floor, overlooking an empty lot. Grandmother had turned it into a garden, full of native plants that thrived in the dry heat of the western Dakotas. Prairie flowers bloomed among wild grasses. A bird feeder fed native sparrows; and a rail fence hosted meadowlarks, who stood as tall as possible, showing off their bright yellow chests, and sang — oh! so loudly!
What could be better than our breakfasts in the kitchen, the windows open to let in cool morning air? Or the hours when I played with the Fort Yates kids, brown-skinned and black-haired? I was darker than they were; and my hair frizzed, because my dad came from the Ivory Coast. But they were relatives, and we got along most of the time.
In the afternoon, when it was too hot to play, I talked with Grandmother — either in the kitchen as we worked on dinner, or in the parlor under a turning ceiling fan. This is when I learned the story of the mammoths.
* * *
According to Grandmother, the trouble began with Lewis and Clark. "We'd heard rumors about what was happening in the east, and the voyageurs had been through our country. Those Frenchmen got everywhere like mice, which is why so many Ojibwa and some Dakota and even Lakota have names like Boisvert, Trudel, Bellecourt and Zephier. But the French were interested in beaver, not our bison and mammoths. We told them if they behaved, they could have safe passage to the Rockies. For the most part, they did behave themselves; and for the most part, we kept our word.
"The thing to remember about the French and the Scots is, they were businessmen. You could reason with them. But the English and Americans were explorers and scientists and farmers searching for new land. People like these are driven by dreams — discovery, investigation, conquest, farms on the short grass prairie where there isn't enough water for trees. No one could reason with them." Grandmother had a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Massachusetts. She was joking, not speaking out of ignorance or disrespect for science.
I'm telling the story the way she told it to me, sitting in her living room in Fort Yates, North Dakota, when I came to visit her on the Standing Rock Reservation in summer. She didn't tell the whole story at once, but piece by piece over days and weeks and from summer to summer. I heard most parts more than once. But I'm going to retell it as a single continuous story; and after this, I'm not going to point out the jokes. There are plenty. Grandmother used to say, "The only way Indians survive is through patience and a strong sense of humor. What a joke the Great Spirit played on us, when it sent Europeans here!"
Anyway, the trouble began that morning in 1805, when Meriwether Lewis became the first white man of English descent to see a mammoth since mammoths died out in England. The animal in question was an adult male, sixty years old or so, older than Meriwether Lewis would ever get to be. It was standing on the bank of the Missouri River drinking water, while its tusks — magnificent ten foot long spirals — shone in the early light. Lewis knew what he was seeing. His neighbor, President Thomas Jefferson, had told him to keep a lookout for mammoths, which white men in the east knew from fossils.
The animal Lewis was looking at was not Mammuthus columbii, which had left fossils in the east. Instead this was Mammuthus missourii, a smaller descendent. An adult male Columbian mammoth could stand thirteen feet tall and weigh ten tons. The fellow drinking water from the Missouri stood ten feet tall at most and weighed five or six tons.
Did he actually have tusks as long as he was tall? Yes, according to Lewis and later scientists who studied Mammuthus missourii. It was, my grandmother said, a classic case of sexual selection.
"In order for a female to achieve reproductive success, she has to be healthy and not too unlucky. This is not true for every species, but it is true of many. In order for a male to breed, he has to impress females and other males. Humans did this with paint, feathers and beads. Look at the paintings by people like George Catlin! Indian men were always gaudier than Indian women. That's because they were trying to proclaim their reproductive fitness. An old-time chief in a war bonnet was exactly like a turkey cock, displaying in the spring."
Don't think Grandmother was speaking disrespectfully of our male ancestors. The wild turkey was her favorite bird; and she felt that little on Earth equaled the sight of a cock spreading his shining bronze tail and making a noise that sounds like "Hubba-hubba."
The tusks of mammoth females stop growing when the animals are twenty-five or thirty, but male tusks keep growing, spiraling out and up until — in some cases — they cross each other.
"All show, of course," my grandmother said. "But what a show!"
Lewis did exactly what you'd expect of a 19th century explorer and scientist. He picked up a gun and shot the mammoth. It was a good shot or possibly lucky. The ball went into the old bull's bright, brown eye. The old fellow screamed in pain and fury, then fell down dead. That was the beginning of the end, my grandmother said.
The expedition butchered the animal, keeping the tusks and skin, which was covered with short, thick, curly fur — most likely light brown; though some mammoths are tan or yellow, and a few are white. They had mammoth steaks for dinner and breakfast, then went on, dragging their boats up river. Most of the meat was left behind to be eaten by wolves and grizzlies. One tusk made it back east to delight President Jefferson. The other was abandoned as too damn heavy. The skin was lost when a boat overturned.
"It was an epic journey," my grandmother said. "And they found many things which Indian people can't remember misplacing, such as the Rocky Mountains. I think you could say that their most famous discovery, even more famous than the Rockies, was living mammoths."
Decades after Lewis and Clark returned to the United States, white people wandered around the west, looking for mastodons, giant ground sloths and saber-tooth cats. But all those animals were gone. Only the mammoths had survived into modern times.
There are white scientists who say Indians killed the ice-age megafauna. Grandmother didn't believe this. "If we were so good at killing, why did so many large animals survive? Moose, musk oxen, elk, caribou, bison, mountain lions, five kinds of bear. The turkey, for heaven's sake! They're big; they can't really fly; and though I love them, no one who has seen a turkey try to go through a barbed wire fence can claim they are especially adaptable.
"Why did horses and camels die out in the New World, when other large animals — moose, mammoth, musk ox and bison — survived? Are we to believe that our ancestors preferred eating horse and camel to eating bison? Hardly likely!"
Most likely, the animals that died out were killed by changes in the climate, my grandmother said. Everything got drier and hotter after the glaciers retreated. The mammoth steppe was replaced by short grass prairie. This was no problem for the bison, but mammoths — like elephants — need lots of moisture.
"In the spring when the grass was green and wet, they'd move out onto the plains. Our ancestors would see them in groups of ten or twenty, grazing among the dark-brown bison. By early summer, they retreated to the rivers, especially the Missouri, and fed on shrubs in the bottom lands. Water was always available. Think what it must have been like to float down river in a pirogue or a round bison-hide boat like the ones made by Mandans and Hidatsa! There the mammoths would be, calves and matrons, bathing in the shallows, squirting water on each other.
"Our ancestors always said, be careful of the mammoths when they're by rivers. Wolves, the big ones called bison wolves, and grizzly bears, which used to be a plains animal till white people drove them into the mountains, lurked in the bottom lands. They couldn't harm a healthy adult, but preyed on calves, the old, the injured. Because of this, the mammoths were uneasy close to water."
If I close my eyes now, I can see her living room. The sky is big everywhere in the Dakotas, but west of the Missouri, it gets even bigger; and sunlight comes down through the dry air like a lance. In Grandmother's house, it came through white gauze curtains that fluttered in the wind and danced in spots on her linoleum floor. The furniture in the room was straight and spare, like Grandmother and her house: a kitchen table, four kitchen chairs and a rocker, all old and scratched, but solid wood that Grandmother kept polished. On the floor, along with dancing spots of sunlight, was a genuine oriental rug, the edges frayed and the pile worn flat. Grandmother bought it in an antique store in Minneapolis. She liked the faded colors and the pattern, geometric, like our Lakota patterns.
"The Chinese and Asian Indians make carpets like gardens; but people from dry, wide-open countries — the people in Central Asia and here — like geometry."
Her most treasured belonging was a mammoth tusk about three feet long. The ivory was honey-colored and carved with horsemen chasing bison. She held it on her lap while she told me stories, stroking the tusk's gentle curve and the incised lines.
"There were two young men, hunters in the days before horses and guns; and they were out on the prairie, looking for something to kill. All they had were spears with stone tips and a dog dragging a travois. If you think it was easy hunting this way in a world full of bison, mammoths, wolves and grizzlies, then you haven't given serious consideration to the question.
"The young men thought they might be able to sneak up on a bison disguised as wolves, which the bison don't usually fear, or find a mammoth weakened by drought. It was midsummer and so dry that many streams and small rivers were empty.
"But they had no luck. Exhausted and discouraged, they made camp, tying the dog securely, since it might become food soon, if they didn't find anything else. They ate the last of their pemmican and drank water dug from a river bed, then slept.
"When they woke, the moon was up and full. Two maidens in white dresses stood at the edge of their camp. Never had they seen girls so lovely. One man was clever enough to recognize spirits when he saw them; he greeted the women respectfully. But the other man was stupid and rude. Getting up, he tried to grab one of the women. She turned and walked quickly across the moonlit prairie. He followed. When they were almost out of sight, the woman turned into a white mammoth, her fur shining like snow in the moonlight. But this didn't make the rude man pause. He followed the mammoth till both of them were gone.
"The second woman said, 'That is my sister, White Mammoth Calf Woman. Your companion will follow her till he's out of this world entirely. But you have greeted me with respect, so I'll teach you the way to hunt bison and how to use every part of the animal, so your people won't be hungry in the future. Remember, though, not to hunt the mammoths, since your companion has made them angry. If you hunt them in spite of my warning, you'll make the bison angry as well; and they and the mammoths will leave.'
"Then she taught him everything about bison. He thanked her gratefully; and she turned to go. 'What is your name?' the polite man asked. In answer, she turned into a snow-white bison calf and ran off across the plain.
Excerpted from Mammoths of the Great Plains by Eleanor Arnason. Copyright © 2010 Eleanor Arnason. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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